March 1, 1982: A day that will live in alacrity
If you are reading this on or around March 1, 2016, the date is an anniversary of sorts. 34 years. Not your typical landmark number, but that’s OK. You see, March 1, 1982 was the date Jeannine and I formally opened for business as Villing & Company. And one of the bright young members of the current Villing team asked for a few remembrances of what it was like “back in the day.”
Unfortunately, we weren’t smart enough to take pictures in those early days. I suspect we were more focused on putting food on the table for our children who were five and two years old at the time. And lacking visual stimulus, it is hard to remember a lot of details. But before I get to specific reminiscences of the birth of a new advertising agency, let’s put these events in some chronological context.
- A gallon of gas was 91 cents.
- A loaf of white bread was 50 cents.
- Interest rates ranged from 11.5 to 15 percent.
- And the U.S. was in a “severe” recession. (More on that later.)
Even though we had a strong PR capability given Jeannine’s background in the field, we referred to ourselves as an advertising agency. That was a universal term that people readily understood.
Advertising business was on the cusp of change.
The big three broadcast television networks (CBS, ABC & NBC) dominated TV viewing, but cable TV and independent TV were already lurking on the horizon and within the decade would take a major slice out of the pie.
Direct response TV in the form of infomercials was also in its infancy.
Advertising awards were still highly coveted by agencies as a way to leverage their creative credentials for winning new business. The Addy Awards presentations back then were the ad industry equivalent of the Oscars.
While I don’t recall actual local advertising media rates, they were certainly a fraction of what they are today.
OK, enough on context. What was it like to open a new agency in 1982?
The first couple weeks we worked out of our house. With two young kids, you can imagine what that was like. We quickly decided we needed an office to give ourselves legitimacy as an agency and a bit quieter environment. So we leased 500 square feet in a little retail complex called Georgetown on the north side of South Bend.
When we opened our doors, we had one relatively small client and a number of big dreams. That first client was Supreme Corporation, a truck body manufacturer in Goshen, Indiana. Our contact was a young VP of marketing named Rick Horn, a demanding but always fair and insightful marketer, who we are proud to say, remains an industry partner (and great friend) to this day.
Within a few months, we were blessed to add our first major account, National Bank of South Bend. Having a major bank on the roster gave us legitimacy and other accounts soon followed including the Cassady & Neeser Insurance Agency, one of the top radio stations in town, a division of Ralston Purina, the Hacienda Restaurants and others.
Like any start-up, we were lean and hungry. To say our tiny office was spartan is to insult the word. Our major investment was an IBM Selectric typewriter for important correspondence. For copywriting, I used what was then called a word processor. Mine was a portable made by Brother and had a memory comparable to what would today be a 140-character Tweet. And our copy machine, words do not do it justice. We bought it at a discount catalog store and you could make one copy in about five minutes using thermal paper.
I could relate other technology tools of the time, but words like “keyline” and “cold type” would only bore most of you. There may be a few who remember “press type lettering” which we used for preparing mock-ups along with actual hand-drawn illustrations.
As I mentioned earlier, 1982 was a recession year. Fortunately for us, we were either too busy or too dumb to know that wasn’t the ideal time to start a business. Naïve about the risks of a start-up company, we just forged ahead. In the meantime, we were having the time of our lives.
I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss.
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